Shore and Wright on Neoliberalism

In their 2016 “Neoliberalisation and the ‘Death of the Public University,’” Cris Shore and Susan Wright give a handy summary of how one might think about the sometimes overused term “neoliberalism”:

Neoliberalism is a problematic concept. Excessive use of the term as a portmanteau for explaining everything that is wrong with contemporary capitalist societies has rendered it an empty signifier devoid of analytical value. As a noun, it suggests something universal and ascribes uniformity and coherence to an assemblage of processes and practices that are far from uniform, consistent or coherent. Like Peck and Tickell (2002: 463), therefore, we prefer to use the term “neoliberalisation” as it highlights the multi-faceted and continually changing set of process associated with neoliberal reform agendas, which assume different forms in different countries. That said, these reforms usually bear close “family resemblances”, to paraphrase Wittgenstein. These include an emphasis on creating an institutional framework that promotes competition, entrepreneurship, commercialisation, profit making and “private good” research and the prevalence of a metanarrative about the importance of markets for promoting the virtues of freedom, choice and prosperity.

In Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere this narrative has typically been framed as taking an “investment approach” to higher education, one that recasts public spending on education in the short term and instrumental language of “return on investment”. This philosophy is also epitomised in the withdrawal of government funding for the arts and humanities and corresponding emphasis now placed on promoting the supposedly more “economically relevant” fields of Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Medicine (the STEM subjects). The name of the game is now about generating new income streams – through “export education”, forging partnerships with business, commercialising university IP, leasing or selling university infrastructure, and developing spin-out companies. These have now become normalised and naturalised features of academia. In the new university, what “counts” are those things that can be “counted”, quanti ed and translated as financial returns to the institution. As one Danish minister summed it up, the aim is speed up the translation of research from “idea to invoice”.

In short: “neoliberalism” (which insinuates that there is a monolithic ideology out there) can become a vague and problematic category, but “neoliberalisation” remains a useful term for capturing a series of family resemblances among reform processes that do have real similarities across national and institutional borders.

In the background here is a large anthropological debate on neoliberalism, but I can’t go into that; here I just want to signal what I take to be the bottom line for higher education scholars.

As one minor addendum to the broad point, I might also add that, in the European context, I also find quite useful the more specific label “New Public Management,” which designates, approximately, “neoliberal management practices in the public sector.” It’s useful to differentiate these from the philosophical discourses on neoliberalism, like “there is no alternative” to capitalism, or “there is no such thing as society.” It’s also useful to differentiate policy discourses from the dynamics of everyday life in neoliberalizing institutions (e.g. there are interesting questions about when and whether neoliberal policies create “neoliberal subjectivities” among local actors).

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Eli Thorkelson

Eli Thorkelson edits Academography and also keeps a research blog at decasia.

3 thoughts on “Shore and Wright on Neoliberalism”

  1. While these framings make lots of sense to me and I like using neoliberalization as a way to insist on a context specificity that is much needed, I am still puzzled by trying the pull the New Public Management out of the matrix as something different. Perhaps I just don´t get it but my reading of the NPM literature did not tell me anything I did not already know about “marketization” from Karl Polanyi. Perhaps it would be worth commenting on the very interesting chapter by Doreen Massey on “Vocabularies of the economy” in Hall, Massey, Rustin, After Neoliberalism_The Kilburn Manifesto and then take up the issue of the NPM and what difference it makes again.

    1. Hi Davydd — Getting back to your comment very belatedly. I will read the Massey chapter and see what I make of it — thanks for the pointer.

      About my admittedly rough distinction between NPM and “neoliberalism,” I think the specificity of NPM is, first of all, that it refers specifically to a form of *public management* which I think can be defined along three axes of contrast:

      1. NPM contrasts with various older forms of state policy-making (particularly in Europe), such as the older French social democratic model where centrally administered public services were provided directly by the state apparatus and governed by ministerial decrees. (That contrasts with the NPM model of denationalized agents who are governed by the state through a series of incentives and contracts.)

      2. NPM strictly picks out public-sector governmental action. Thus, similar practices pursued by non-state actors don’t count as NPM, because they aren’t public management. In other words, if a university marketing office implements a new neoliberal branding project (as in Bonnie Urciuoli’s work on Hamilton), I might call that “neoliberal” — Bonnie certainly would — but I wouldn’t call it “public management” because the operative party isn’t the state.

      3. NPM tends to designate a practice of government rather than an academic “doctrine.” In this sense, NPM is narrower than “neoliberalism,” which can designate a mode of governance but also readily comes to designate a more philosophical form of market ideology. Thus “neoliberalism” gets used to talk about the Milton Friedman type of free market ideologues (I can’t really comment on how accurate that is, since I don’t read much economic theory) — but one would not readily call Chicago School economics a form of NPM, again because it is a theory of economy and society, not itself a mode of governance. Of course, since ideology and practice always permeate each other, this last distinction is not very clear-cut. Still, I find it useful to observe that public policymakers can implement NPM without necessarily being committed to a strong theory of market efficiency or something. (Sometimes you find people implementing NPM because they have to, or because their peers are doing it, or because the status quo is broken and they want to try something else, etc — in all of those cases you can find NPM being implemented without having to buy into a strong ideological superstructure, if you know what I mean.)

  2. No doubt you are right that the ostensible referent of NPM is the public sector and it is reasonable to remember that. But I think this more definitional approach overlooks the ideological-methodological expansion of market fundamentalism that underlies NPM, rational choice theory, casino capitalism, and the work of people like Gary Becker and those who have expanded market fundamentalism into genetics, ecology, psychology, and law. So yes, NPM is a public sector idea but for me, it is the public sector application of one basic ideology and practice of inequality. We can have the distinctions that you make and recognize the geneaology and osmolitic expansion of these ideas to so many other social realms. I take this to be the lesson of “institutional isomorphism”.

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